I started growing cassava three years ago. My friends and fellow gardeners Paul and Ginny Campbell gave me the first stalk. Cassava is propagated that way – by saving the stalks to plant the next season. The trick is to store them until the spring without them drying out or molding. Some people wax the ends. I’ve found that wrapping them in paper feed bags works. It has to be something that keeps in just enough moisture that they don’t dry out, but not so much that they mold.
The first year I had four plants. They came up with enormous root systems. The next year I had more stalks, and a whole row of plants. Last summer I planted three rows of cassava. The plants were huge, twice as tall as Ethan, taller than my house. I planted them in layer-cake compost beds, and they love the sandy soil. Just before the first frosty night, I cut the stalks and wrapped them up in the barn for the spring.
The root systems are enormous and have been sustaining us all winter. One root system feeds us for about a week. I boil it and serve it with butter and sour citrus juice, or gravy or soup, or fry it “American-style” in lard where it turns out golden, crispy and tender.
The tricky thing about cassava is that it has cyanide all through it. It must be thoroughly cooked to get rid of most of it, and even then a small amount remains. In other parts of the world where cassava is a year-round staple, people soak or ferment it to get rid of the cyanide.
Another problem is that it spoils very quickly once out of the ground. Some people pull it, peel it, blanche and freeze it. Our freezer space is precious, so we have always cut the stalks and left the roots in the ground to over-winter. It works, as long as rabbits and other wild animals don’t chew the roots (they will, cyanide and all).
It also can have an almost bitter flavor that my children don’t like. But I’ve found that soaking/fermenting solves all three problems – the cyanide, the spoilage, and the flavor. It took me a while to start trying it out, because I wasn’t quite sure how to begin. Now I pull a root system, peel it, chop it up, and soak it, and it will keep until we finish eating it, as long as I change the water every 24 hours. I can smell the cyanide coming out when I pour off the soaking water and wash them. Every day we cook and eat some, and each day it soaks it becomes lighter, more tender and delicious – and my children will actually eat it, which is great.
So here is the process, from Earth to table:
First, harvest the roots. De-leaf the stalk and snap the very thin top part, and any side branches, off. Save the stalk carefully away from wet or damp, extreme dryness, light, and frost for next summer season’s planting. You can also save the tender top leaves, but they will need lots of boiling to make them edible (please read about it first). The roots will have sand clinging to them. You can wash them, but I usually leave them sandy for now. Towards the stem the roots can be quite tough. I use a machete to cut them free. Keep in mind that once pulled, they have to be dealt with right away. Even after two or three days they will start to spoil.
Next, I peel them. Cutting the long roots into smaller chunks makes it easier to peel. Use a thin, sharp knife and be careful. There are two skins – the rough brown bark-like skin, and the inner pink skin. The pink skin has lots of cyanide and should be peeled away. I haven’t washed them, so I usually do this outside. I wash the peeled roots and put them into a big bowl of cool water right away to soak until I am finished peeling them all.
Once everything is peeled and washed, I pull them out of the water and slice them into slices. I put them into a fresh bowl of water now. They fit better this way, and the increased surface area seems to help the soaking. You can add whey if you want to, although I’ve gotten some funky-tasting results with it.
The important thing is to make sure all the roots stay covered. They will oxidize and start turning black if exposed to air even for overnight. At least once every 24 hours, the roots must be drained and washed, and filled with more cool water. I tip the bowl so that the dregs also run out, and run cold water around before filling the bowl with all fresh water. They will keep six or seven days this way, getting more tender and tasty every day. But as soon as I forget to change the water, even for just a few hours, they start to spoil and taste bad. They are probably still edible, but I don’t like the flavor. It tastes like rotten cheese.
To cook them, pull some out of the water and put in a pot with more fresh water. Boil them until they are soft. Then you can serve them with butter and lemon juice, chopped cilantro, gravy, soup, or fry them in lard, butter, chicken fat, drippings, etc, until they are golden and crisp.
And to finish, here’s a little riddle I came up with last year about cassava:
Straight and tall I stand
Firmly grounded in the sand
And all around I spread my hands
Each vertebrae of mine
Becomes another of its kind.